Review: The Lion King (2019)

In many ways, the 2019 version of The Lion King is a difficult film for me to review fairly. The original is my definitive childhood classic, a videotape I played to the brink of my family’s sanity. This is a story I knew by heart before forming any lasting memories of my personal life. The natural response to such a shameless cash-in is annoyance, but an even more bothersome fact is that my knowledge of the original work fills in the gaps of what the remake lacks.

This is rooted in the elements we all knew were wrong from that first trailer, the ads conspicuously shy about showing the lions actually speaking. It’s the words that have plagued every review so far, that these animals lack a visually emotive language. As someone experienced with this story, I perhaps filled in the lines too easily, accepting the emotions I knew hid behind these emotionally void faces. I can’t begin to imagine how these moments read to someone unversed in the narrative.

The problem is not solely the lack of expression failing to sell half the emotions, but that the voices rarely match the characters they represent. The young Simba is paired with a particularly weak actor, but it goes beyond the delivery. Words rarely line up with the movements of the mouth. Director Jon Favreau, in his pursuit of so-called realism, misses the fact that we vocalize through certain shapes. Certainly, lions don’t express with their faces the way we do, but they also don’t speak. Neither end is going to be convincingly real – so why go all in on pursuing ‘realism?’

Favreau chose the wrong side, and this underlines what I find most problematic about these ‘live action’ remakes. They’re produced with the apparent suggestion that the animated films were only made as such because the stories couldn’t be made realistically with contemporary technology. It treats animation as an inferior medium, as if this story is somehow being brought to life by shedding as much vibrancy as possible.

As much as it follows the plot beats, this remake fails to grasp the spirit of the original. That film was in a state of constant motion, unafraid to embrace over-the-top musical numbers while filling every frame with color during even its quietest moments. This is a story written to take place in a fantastical world, despite its setting being grounded among believable animals.

Let’s compare the entrance of the hyenas. In the original, they step out from the inside of an elephant’s skull. This is stunning and blunt, immediately linking them to death purely through the image. Here, they simply walk into frame. Characters perform the necessary actions, but never with style. Much like Zack Snyder’s take on comic book adaptations, this new Lion King seems ashamed of its brighter origins.

The musical numbers are largely embarrassing here. “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King,” with Favreau afraid to embrace even the slightest hint of surrealism, devolves into Simba and Nala just running alongside some animals. “Be Prepared” is gutted, Scar doing little more than speaking the lines and sounding completely off as the song should be rising. Again, no visual creativity here; Scar simply climbs to the top of the jutting rock as the hyenas look on. Meanwhile, “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” doesn’t work without the questioning looks between Simba and Nala. Here, they’re two animals looking blankly at one another.

The one shining moment is “Circle of Life,” a perfect showcase for this particular technological achievement. Even in the original film, this scene was presented from an emotional distance, lingering on unimportant animals before focusing in on Simba and his family. It’s where The Lion King is most rooted in the natural world, a perfect fit for Favreau’s otherwise misguided style.

I have more mixed feelings on the treatment of Timon and Pumbaa. Their dialogue is switched up a bit, and where they used to rely largely on gross-out humor, it’s now mixed with a certain meta-humor. These new jokes were surprisingly effective. However, it gives the pair a certain distance from the story, and the film seems to gloss over their bonding with Simba.

That’s the oddest thing about this film. It adds half an hour to the runtime yet covers no additional ground, sometimes even seeming to have less content. How is that possible? Simply put, everything happens at a slower pace. The original was cut with a certain rhythm, a slim film that made every moment count. With this new version, every movement is drawn out for the sake of realism. Favreau apparently hoped to replace facial expressions with body language, but it does nothing but make an expertly timed story trip over itself.

While the visual effects are stellar, the other technical elements are phoned in. As with every other Disney remake, the film is shot and edited from the most convenient angle possible. During the “Hakuna Matata” sequence, the camera follows as Simba runs alongside Timon and Pumbaa, doing nothing but singing. These moments carry no dynamic energy, not in the actions of its characters or how it captures them.

The 2019 version of The Lion King is an exercise in how to drain all life from an animated classic. It’s by no means the worst film of the year, merely dull and unnecessary, but it might be the most easily hate-able. Its purpose is questionable at best, a testament to Disney misunderstanding the significance of their own properties. But it’s not a misunderstanding – this is a company fully aware they don’t need to try to make money. It’s bizarre that a film pushing technical capabilities to this level has no consideration for how to make proper use of it. Instead, it takes the backbone of the original and skins it down to basic plot beats, completely dropping several visual motifs in favor of nothing at all. Despite its surface luster, this is a film completely lacking in style. This is Hollywood at its laziest, cannibalizing its own classics and acting as if the most basic visual mimicry can hide the lack of care given to the image as a whole.

2 Stars Out of 5

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